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Days at the Museum
Comments () | Published July 1, 2009

He has a like-minded partner in Stonesifer, who was a senior official at Microsoft before leading the Gates Foundation for the last decade.

Clough, who grew up in the tobacco-farming town of Douglas, Georgia, didn’t get to visit museums as a child. Stonesifer, an Indianapolis native who was one of nine children, visited the Smithsonian only once as a kid.

“That’s one of the reasons I care greatly about how we take the Smithsonian across the country,” says Stonesifer, “to the child in Indiana who wants to explore the American presidency or the single mother in Seattle who wants to understand more about oceans. It’s nice for the Smithsonian to belong to the American people, but [having it] in a lock box is not so useful.”

It’s a debate so familiar that it played out in the Night at the Museum sequel:

“People love this stuff,” former night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) tells a museum director, referring to artifacts that are crated up and about to be replaced with holograms.

“People love what’s next,” the museum director replies.

Roger Sant, then chair of the Smithsonian board of regents, remembers the weekend of March 23, 2007, vividly. On Friday night, Lawrence Small submitted his resignation. Saturday, the board held a conference call—led by chief justice John Roberts, chancellor of the Smithsonian—to decide whether most of them should also resign, having been asleep at the wheel while Small was running up Smithsonian expenses for cleaning his chandelier and servicing his back-yard pool. By Sunday, they had decided to appoint Cristián Samper acting secretary—and to stay.

Recalls Sant: “While we were very willing to admit we’d missed a lot of things we should have seen, to a person everyone said it’s our job to fix it. The board could have fractured. I could have been the one blamed. In fact, it came together.”

Stonesifer, a board member since 2001, helped pull it together, handing out a 28-page booklet on exceptional boards and principles of governance to the regents, who include the Vice President of the United States, the chief justice, three senators, three House members, and nine independent members who are generally high-powered executives. “We had to go from baseline to great in a short period of time,” she says.

With Samper’s help, the board drafted a list of 25 recommendations for new governing regulations, most of which have been implemented. Senior executives no longer would be permitted to serve on boards of for-profit companies. Travel and entertainment expenses incurred by the secretary and senior executives would be reviewed by the chief financial officer. The secretary’s salary—Clough’s is $490,000, compared with Small’s $916,000—would be in line with those in the nonprofit sector and befitting the institution’s public-trust status. The board would meet four times a year instead of three, and at least one meeting would be public.

In September, Stonesifer stepped down from the top post at the Gates Foundation, and in January she started her term as Smithsonian board chair. Through her reputation as a champion of global public-health efforts and as a respected businesswoman, she has helped restore confidence in the regents.

“She’s a very strong, clear-thinking person,” says philanthropist Ed Scott, cofounder of the Center for Global Development.

A down-to-earth woman whose unpretentious manner belies her position and the fortune she made at Microsoft, Stonesifer, 52, now commutes between Washington and Seattle, where she still works as an adviser to the Gates Foundation. She spends one to two months at a time here and recently bought a condo at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in DC’s West End with her husband, journalist Michael Kinsley. She has an office in the Castle, meets with Clough weekly, by phone if not in person, and has opened a lot of donor doors.

She and Kinsley met when the Washington writer went to Seattle to edit Slate, the online magazine started by Microsoft. They’re known as a lively couple—“two brainiacs,” a friend says—who love to slug it out over issues. “I still claim we have the best breakfast-table conversation,” says Stonesifer, who has two grown children from a previous marriage and writes an advice column on doing good with daughter Sandy for Slate.

Her Smithsonian position, she says, has allowed the couple to add curators and scientists to the software engineers, journalists, and public-health advocates they socialize with. Also a new activity: raising money. She’s been more accustomed to giving it away.

She held a dinner party in Seattle recently to introduce potential donors to Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The latest Smithsonian museum, likely the last to be located on the Mall, is scheduled for a 2012 groundbreaking. “If you told me I’d consider those sorts of things fun, I would have been surprised,” says Stonesifer.

She notes that she’s worked with mainly two donors in the past. But Warren Buffett and Bill Gates aren’t your typical donors.

While many Smithsonian staffers hoped Cristián Samper would keep the top job, Clough had one key asset besides being an outsider—a track record as a fundraiser. In 14 years as president of Georgia Tech, he raised $1.6 billion in private donations.

Asked how much of his new job is about raising money, he laughs and says: “One hundred percent, I suppose.” 

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 07/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles